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What's wrong with journalism today - Phil's Rambling Rants
April 26th, 2005
03:29 pm

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What's wrong with journalism today
Last night, I had a conversation with birder2 and ranted somewhat incoherently about the problem with journalism today.  Briefly, today's real professional journalists (not to be confused with propaganda artists and corporate hacks who call what they do journalism) seem to be laboring under a tremendous onus to be "objective" and "balanced", to always present both sides of the issue fairly and let the viewer (listener, reader, whatever) decide what's right, even in cases where there is no question about which side is right.

This morning, our local public radio station had an interview segment which was such an excellent case in point that I felt the urge to write something about it.  David Inge, the host of the show, is usually an excellent interviewer who brings out much of what's interesting about what the guest has to say, asking intelligent questions but seldom injecting his own opinions.  This morning, though, he was interviewing the author of a book on homeopathy.  This author's claim to be presenting a completely objective investigation of the subject was frustrating enough, but I was really frustrated when David was taking her loony position at face value and treating it as completely reasonable.  Homeopathy is pure quackery.  If their potions are actually prepared the way they say they are, there is nothing at all in them but water; if there is anything in them, they're explicitly lying about how they're prepared.  Yet David went along with the author's statements about objectively presenting the claims of both sides without objection, didn't challenge it when homeopathy was lumped together with other forms of "non-traditional" medicine such as herbal remedies, and didn't even appear to bat an eye at the tinfoil-hat-wearing caller who was explaining how homeopathic remedies retained some "vibrational signature" of the substances which weren't there, and therefore it made sense that the less of the substance that was there the more potent it would be.  I've been listening to David's show for years, and I know he's smart enough to actually understand concepts like diluting until there are no atoms left, rather than just hearing "blah blah science blah blah" whenever someone strings together a few words with more than two syllables.

When a journalist insists on being "objective" when faced with a "controversy" between wild-eyed lunacy on one hand and logical reality on the other, he is not doing society a service.  By making a point of presenting two points of view as equally valid when one of them is clearly contrary to fact, he legitimates the bogus point of view, and raises it to equal validity in the minds of many viewers.  When all opinions become equally valid, anyone with an opinion becomes an "expert", and it becomes impossible for the public to tell what's really happening if they don't have the time, prerequisite knowledge, and critical thinking skills to investigate a topic on their own.  They become prey to slick orators with specific axes to grind who can always quote a superficially convincing legion of "expert"s supporting their positions.

Objectivity does have a place in journalism.  When there is real evidence on both sides of an issue, a journalist should present both sides in such a way that the viewer has a real chance to understand the gist of both arguments.  But when there is a clear right answer to a concrete, scientific question, it is the journalist's responsibility to make this clear, not to create and perpetuate a controversy by trying to make both sides seem equal.  How a particular question should be handled is a judgment call, but we need to let our journalists know that they're allowed to have judgment.

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From:markiv1111
Date:April 26th, 2005 09:05 pm (UTC)

Agreement

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You are 100% absolutely and completely right, both in the general sense and in the more specific sense regarding homeopathy. Have you ever read Martin Gardner's excellent book *Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science*? Strongly recommended, though I have a feeling that my own copy (about 30 years old) vanished two or three moves ago.

Nate
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From:figmo
Date:April 27th, 2005 01:00 am (UTC)
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A journalist's job is to let you decide viewpoints. Making fun of someone who seems totally outrageous causes them to clam up, making for a lousy interview.

As a journalist, no matter how much you feel like it, you can't go and yell, "Hey, you ninny! That's hogwash!" It destroys whatever objectivity you have. Taking the side of the interviewee if you're supposed to be "objective" is equally sucky.

A really good interviewer lets credible interviewees sound credible and less-than-credible interviewees hang themselves.

One of my favorite interviewers is Tim Russert of NBC. When he does "Meet the Press" he's so good at playing Devil's Advocate you'd swear his viewpoints were the opposite of the interviewee's, but then he'll turn around and interview someone on the opposite side of the same issue with equal fervor.
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From:tigertoy
Date:April 27th, 2005 02:20 am (UTC)
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When the interviewee is spouting complete hogwash, it is NOT appropriate for the interviewer to sanction it by acknowledging the hogwash as logical and credible. That doesn't mean the interviewer should ridicule the interviewee, but when the interviewee says something that's factually obviously false or completely illogical, the interviewer should follow up on that point until the whole audience sees it. It's better style, as you suggest, to let the interviewee destroy his own credibility than for the interviewer to be seen as doing a hatchet job -- but a good interviewer knows more about the subject than what the interviewee has said in the interview so far, and his first job is to serve as a bullshit detector. Truth is more important than objectivity.
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From:figmo
Date:April 27th, 2005 06:03 am (UTC)
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I guess I'd have had to have heard the interview to comment further.

I can say I've heard some abominable interviews over the years on professional radio. I remember one so poorly done I almost ran off the road I was laughing so hard. I thought it was just me, but on ba.broadcast (the newsgroup) someone else had posted something about that interview and how he'd had the same reaction to it.
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From:tigertoy
Date:April 27th, 2005 04:44 pm (UTC)
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If you're really interested, the show is archived here. It's the Tuesday at 11AM show, "Copeland's Cure"; you can get it in RealAudio or MP3. But briefly, it's not a bad interview in general; I consider David a good interviewer, and he gave this guest the same treatment he gives all his guests. The problem is that his usual guest isn't discussing hogwash. The guest herself wasn't claiming to be promoting homeopathy, but in the guise of examining it objectively, she was giving it far more credit than it should get, and David was completely taking that position at face value. I may well be overreacting about this particular interview, because homeopathy is so ridiculous it's a bit of a hot button for me.
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From:poltr1
Date:April 28th, 2005 05:32 pm (UTC)

You hit a nerve here.

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You're stating your opinions about homeopathy as if they were facts. That's a hot button for me.

Furthermore, in my opinion, I believe you are allowing your opinions and judgements to prevent you from being open-minded about the topic. If you're a Skeptic, say so in your argument.

I'm a big fan of "I" statements. I know I'd have a lot easier time accepting people's point of view if they say "I disagree" or "I don't believe in X" rather than "You're wrong" or "X is crap".

What do you really know about homoeopathy? Have you tried it and not had it work for you? If homeopathy is hogwash, as you say, why has it been so popular in European countries for years? Why are they using it on pets now? Yes, I'll admit that homeopathy is not a panacea -- nothing is, not even the allopathic and pharmeceutical-based American health care system.
And I'd love to see scientific studies to demostrate that homeopathy actually works, if only someone neutral would produce the funding. But I want to hear some evidence to back up your claim.

As for David Inge, I don't know how much he knows about homeopathy, and probably figured his audience doesn't know a lot about it either. So he let the guest educate the listeners, and himself.
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From:tigertoy
Date:April 28th, 2005 06:55 pm (UTC)

Re: You hit a nerve here.

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What do YOU know about homeopathy? Do you actually understand what a "50C dilution" means?

I consider myself open to alternative therapies that admit to some logically tenable mechanism by which they could work, but a "tharapy" that openly admits to preparations that have no trace, not one atom, of the supposedly active ingredient, but makes mystical claims of retaining some "vibrational energy signature" of the substance, does not deserve to be taken seriously. This is why lumping homeopathy with herbal medicine, traditional tribal cures, and other "alternative therapies" hits a nerve with me.

Homeopathy was invented over 200 years ago, at a time when "mainstream" physicians routinely used treatments like bleeding and purging and medicines based on mercury and arsenic. It was able to build up a reputation because it was a great deal better for the patient than the traditional therapy -- doing nothing at all is better than doing active harm. Give something a long history of people that think it works, give it a mumbo jumbo explanation that sounds good to people who don't actually understand it, and have it administered by a charismatic practitioner who spends more time actually paying attention to the patient than a regular doctor (standard practice for a homeopathic physician does include an extended interview with the patient to get the details of the symptoms; to its credit homeopathy does not claim to have all the answers, and wants to be sure that if you have a problem they acknowledge is better solved by other treatment it's recognized and you get sent there), and you have perfect conditions to maximize the placebo effect. But when the "medicine" is perfectly pure water, there simply can't *be* any effect other than the placebo effect.
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From:poltr1
Date:April 29th, 2005 03:39 am (UTC)

Re: You hit a nerve here.

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What do *I* know about homeopathy? Not a lot, but I have a few friends who use homeopathic methods and swear by them.

As for 50C... if the "C" means "100" (as in "centesimal dilution"), then that's a 1/5000 dilution, or 0.02%. But then, a chlorine bleach/water solution only needs 10 ppm to be effective to clean tabletops, and 100 ppm to sterilize.

I'll grant you that the "vibrational energy signature" explanation sounds very far-fetched, even new-agey. And like herbal medicine, people shouldn't be delving into homeopathic methods themselves without the guidance of a trained expert. But there have been examples where homeopathy has worked. Here's one about a boy with autism.

Yes, I'm skeptical, but open-minded enough to try them out to see if they work on me.

Oh yeah... about water... I think you may find the works of Dr. Masaru Emoto fascinating... or not. Check out the pictures of water crystals on his website.
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From:tigertoy
Date:April 29th, 2005 06:42 pm (UTC)

Re: You hit a nerve here.

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As for 50C... if the "C" means "100" (as in "centesimal dilution"), then that's a 1/5000 dilution, or 0.02%. But then, a chlorine bleach/water solution only needs 10 ppm to be effective to clean tabletops, and 100 ppm to sterilize.

Uh, no. The "C" does in fact mean 100, as in centisimal dilution", but the number in front means that's how many times in sequence to perform the dilution -- 2C means do a 1/100 dilution, and then do it again on the resulting mixture -- so a 50C dilution in fact means a 10100 dilution.
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